From pulp to corsets: lesbian literary stereotypes

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 30 Sep 2016
  • Christina Rosetti

Vita Sackville-West was a writer who happily shunted the boundaries of literary form, along with the imposed norms of gender and sexuality. As her granddaughter Juliet Nicolson comes to Manchester Literature Festival to talk about her book A House Full of Daughters, which explores West’s life and her own family heritage, we take a look at the erasure of lesbian stories in literary history.

Books like Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – and Sackville-West’s lost poem to Violet Trefusis – depict the lesbian experience in nuanced, varied and complex ways.

Trawling through lesbian literary characters in history, though, a raft of remarkably similar, unchanging stereotypes about lesbianism appear again and again. The lesbian experience is often either completely absent, or is commandeered by false assumptions about what it means to be homosexual.

Here, we look at some of the familiar character tropes of lesbians in books.

Mad, bad and sad

A familiar trend in books depicting LGBTQ relationships is the idea that everything ends badly. Clementine in Julie Maroh’s comic Blue Is the Warmest Color (2010) destroys the intense relationship she has with Emma by cheating on her with a random from work, and the bond between Stephen and Mary in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) becomes tarred by their branding as social outcasts and sinks into a well of despair.

This penchant for destruction is too often linked with mental illness; a lesbian relationship is portrayed as a temporary distraction for characters experiencing mental and emotional trauma. The connection between Gia and Linda in Michael Cristofer’s 1998 TV movie Gia is presented as another 'fix' for the protagonist (the sexual release provided by the affair parallels Gia’s drug addiction), which cannot last because it’s merely an escape from her loneliness and recent bereavement. None of this is surprising given that it took until the 1970s for homosexuality to be taken off the list of mental disorders, but it is a reminder of the importance of works from the likes of Winterson and Mae Brown.

Sexless Spinster

A lot of Victoriana falls prey to the notion of the sexless woman and the idea that sex is always about men, men, men.

When you think of Dickens, the first thing that springs to mind is probably a poor child loafing about in a dirty flat cap – but according to some, his novels also contain a few covert lesbians.

Little Dorrit’s Miss Wade rejects her Victorian female role as a birthing dishwasher enchanted by a stern, moustached man, meaning that she must become a po-faced grouch whose motivations and desires are unknowable, and is pushed into the closet. Meagles questions Miss Wade, asking, "If it should happen that you are a woman..." Here, Meagles demonstrates a common complaint known as ‘seeing anyone who falls outside of your own self-constructed categories as a weirdo.’ Miss Wade’s transgression of accepted standards of Victorian sexuality means that not only is she silenced, but she is also made into an undesired and sexless oddity to boot.

Friends (with benefits)

Friendship can offer many things: a chance to learn and grow, or simply someone you turn to for vodka shots when times are tough. Friendship is also a quick way for a writer to hide a same-sex relationship.

Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market tells the story of Lizzie and Laura, two best, best friends who also happen to always share the same bed. The poem is filled with sexual imagery about temptation and eating the ‘forbidden fruit’ – the only way that Laura can recover from her near-death experience is by drinking the Goblin’s juice from Lizzie’s body.

By presenting Lizzie and Laura as close friends, Rossetti is able to give the two an emotional connection and intimacy while avoiding the scorn that would have prevented publication in the 1860s. Of course, Laura and Lizzie’s relationship has to be temporary, and the end of the poem sees them return to the safe confines of the Victorian family, relaying the story to their little sprogs. The poem becomes a cautionary tale: women, don’t become anything more than best friends or the world may cave in.

The Lost Rogue

According to post-war pulp fiction, all women who wear black lace-up boots and baggy trousers and opt for a shorter hairdo are lesbians.

The arrival of cheap paperback lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950s and 60s in magazine stands and drugstores across America provided a way for women to finally read about their own experience, and many women suffered the shame of secretly buying copies to carry home in their brown paper bags.

But these pocket books were mostly written by men (with Ann Bannon being a notable exception) to fulfil straight men’s fantasies about two women sleeping together, leading to some of the most painful attempts at sex writing in the entire history of putting words on a page. See such delights as Clyde French’s Lesbian Wife: 'The platinum-haired whore could only hide part of her revulsion, then her greed made her peel down one shoulder strap.'

In many pulp novels, the lesbian character takes on the role of another pop culture villain: the vampire. She wanders about at night, often waiting for the ‘shadows of the twilight world,’ preying on innocents and then retiring to a life of aimless roaming, lost in a world where she doesn’t fit in. Aside from the heap of sticky language, these books relay the idea that being a lesbian is the same as being a stray waif, teetering alone on the edge of society.

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In light of this erasure of lesbian experiences, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it has taken more than half a century for Sackville-West’s relationship with Virginia Woolf (following the publication of their love letters) to be reflected in criticism of her work. But, as a disruptor of gender and literary traditions, Sackville-West helped to trailblaze a path for writers like Waters and Winterson, making the scratchings-out of lesbian stories a little clearer.

Juliet Nicolson will talk at the Portico Library, Manchester, Sat 8 Oct, 4pm, £8 (£6)

manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk